Youth sports can be an uplifting and positive experience for most players. Kids learn leadership, compromise, humility, pride, perseverance, joy, how to make friends, how to set goals and healthy habits such as good nutrition and exercise. But every so often youth sports expose a dark underbelly of behaviors far removed from what we want our kids to learn. In June, such an event occurred in youth hockey. During the traditional handshake line following a game, the coach of the winning team stuck his leg out and purposely tripped a member of the opposing team, causing him to fall and, in the process, break his wrist. Yesterday, the coach was sentenced to fifteen days in jail, but he will probably also face a civil lawsuit from the parents of the boy he injured. The YouTube video of the event features the gasps and moans of the spectators who witnessed the action and total disbelief from the 12- and 13-year-old players on both teams.
Then, last week a redeeming story exposed the highest ideals of youth sports. During an end-of-the-season high school basketball game in El Paso, Texas between the Coronado Thunderbirds and Franklin High, the Coronado coach sent in his team manager to play the final two minutes of the game. The young man, Mitchell Marcus, is developmentally disabled and an avid basketball fan. The entire school cheered as Mitchell ran onto the court. Time after time the team fed Mitchell the ball in order for the young man to make a basket, and time after time Mitchell failed in his shots. In the waning seconds of the game, his team passed him the ball; it slipped through his hands and flew out of bounds, giving the opposing team possession. Then something remarkable happened. The opposing player who was to throw the ball inbounds called Mitchell’s name and sent the ball to him. While the crowd went silent in disbelief, Mitchell received the ball, turned and made a basket at last. The entire gym erupted in cheers. Mitchell’s team mobbed him and lifted him on their shoulders. This amazing act of sportsmanship left Mitchell’s mother in tears and overwhelmed the coach. The young player who passed him the ball, Jonathon Montanez, said, "I was raised to treat others how you want to be treated. I just thought Mitchell deserved his chance, deserved his opportunity."
These stories are a study in contrasts and ask the question: Which example would my children follow? I know I raised my children by the Golden Rule, but I have also been ravenously vocal during games applauding and encouraging a win. I would like to think that in the same situations my children would have never sabotaged a player and instead would have displayed sportsman-like sacrifice. The Thunderbirds had a 13-point lead at the time, so Franklin High really didn’t have a chance to snatch victory in the situation. But the action of Montanez certainly went against the philosophy of "it’s not over until it’s over." Risking both the loss, but more importantly the wrath of his fellow teammates and his coach, Jonathon ignored his own fate and focused on the positives of giving Mitchell his chance at a memory he will have forever. Have we taught our kids to be so selfless? Do they see examples of sacrifice often enough to be influenced by that behavior? As parents, what message do we send before, during and after games that might contradict being benevolent?
The emphasis on winning in youth sports can taint the positive lessons kids should be learning. The hockey coach’s team had won the game, but that wasn’t enough for him. He needed to humiliate one of the opposing players he felt had played with particular arrogance. After he tripped the young man, he turns and points at him with an air of "you got what you deserved." Emotions run high during a game and winning can be the most powerful of elixirs. So it’s important that coaches and parents teach players to celebrate victory with humility. Even if my children might not have passed a ball to a deserving opposing player for a score, I definitely hope that they would all delight in a win without animosity towards their opposition. Even if they lost, they should rise above any petty retribution or anger. Once the final seconds have ticked away, what should remain are friendships, pride in effort and the joy of playing. No matter the stakes in youth sports, games should just be games since most players will not advance further than the youth teams they play on. One could argue that players need to learn the intensity of pushing for a win if they are to become top competitors. I would agree for the top percentage of players that the later stages of youth development up the ante. But becoming competitive doesn’t have to mean leaving compassion and good sportsmanship in the dust. And for most youth players the need to develop a "killer" instinct just isn’t necessary. That’s not the point of youth sports and certainly not one of the benefits.
I’m sure most players wouldn’t do what Jonathon Montanez did. I’m also sure that most players wouldn’t do what that hockey coach did. The actions of our players fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Altruism in sports does go against most of the objectives of competition, but sports should be a small piece of what constitutes our children’s moral upbringing. So as parents we can try to instill in our kids the ability to discern moments when they should be unselfish. In truth that’s the actual definition of good sportsmanship — recognizing that good competition requires acts of humanity. When we learn that football players were paid for administering injurious hits or athletes used drugs to improve their performance, we need to discuss those issues with our children so they can learn to apply reason to the tough moral choices they will face in life. Likewise, when there are cases of good sportsmanship, we need to present those to our kids so we can discuss why those are significant decisions. Recently in a cross country race, the lead runner thought he had crossed the finish line so he slowed down and threw his arms up in victory, but the line was actually a dozen yards further down. The runner behind him could have easily caught him and won the race, but realizing the mistake slowed down and urged his challenger to keep running so he could win. What is even more amazing is that the race was being held in Spain and the second-place runner was Spanish. He would have gotten extra glory for winning this contest for his homeland. But as he said, "…because today, with the way things are in all circles, in soccer, in society, in politics, where it seems anything goes, a gesture of honesty goes down well." What an outstanding statement. We would all do well to remember that we are capable of a "gesture of honesty" when the times call for it in sports or in life.